The West Midlands is an area that takes pride in its industrial heritage. From the days it was known as the ‘Workshop of the World’ through to the current success of Jaguar Landrover, the birthplace of Matthew Boulton and home of the Industrial Revolution has always been at the heart of British innovation. Now, as the twenty-first century gathers pace, this trend looks set to continue into the low carbon revolution that is fundamentally changing the nation’s energy system. The smoke-darkened skies may be long gone, but on 29th November there was no shortage of blue-sky thinking as 18 of the world’s leading low carbon innovators arrived in Birmingham for The West Midlands Climate Innovation Challenge.

The event was a joint venture between Birmingham City Council, Climate-KIC and Leamington Spa based engineering consultants, Encraft. The organisers sought solutions to three energy related challenges faced by the West Midlands region.

Those challenges were as follows:

  1. Integrate innovation that ‘challenges standards for low carbon cities’ into the £500 million Smithfield redevelopment, helping Birmingham to become a ‘zero carbon emission city’.
  1. Find a solution to help energy network operators increase their existing capacity so that their infrastructure can catch up with the manufacturing renaissance that is happening across Coventry, Warwickshire and the Black Country.
  1. Design an energy system to reduce carbon emissions and energy bills for the thousands of new homes that will be built across the Black Country over the next ten years.

The build-up to the event generated a lot of interest amongst the business and academic communities, which was further fuelled by £60,000 prize money and the opportunity to work with the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership. Understandably, there was no shortage of entrants and the standard of innovation was extremely high. Those who eventually made it through to the final came from right across the UK and Europe, including, of course, the West Midlands.

The task of selecting just three winners was an incredibly difficult one and much of the responsibility fell on the shoulders of Matthew Rhodes, Managing Director of Encraft and Chair of the Judging Panel. He was extremely impressed by the calibre of finalists.

‘It was a fantastic day and really exciting to see such an interesting range of ideas, as well as the entrepreneurial passion and technical capabilities of so many of the applicants. The judges felt that almost everybody we saw could have won, and in the end the differences between the finalists and those that didn’t win this time were really very small.’

One of the winners was Dr Colleen Becker, the founder of Sampson Limited. Her company specialise in decarbonised manufacturing, which involves producing construction materials from waste, including bitumen.

Colleen said, ‘The West Midlands Climate Innovation Challenge was an invaluable experience both for me and for Sampson, particularly during this early-growth stage in which we are seeking opportunities to forge relationships with strategic and industrial partners.’

There was undoubtedly a sense of common purpose amongst the finalists, who spent much of the day collaborating with each other in order to find mutually beneficial ways to drive their low carbon businesses forward. This was something that was further articulated by the two other winners.

Coheat Limited provide an open platform for metering and monitoring smart district heating networks. Their Managing Director, Marko Cosic, was enthused by the whole challenge.

‘We were obviously delighted that the judges recognised the quality and practicality of our product for cutting carbon,’ he said. ‘But the highlight of the day for me was meeting so many forward-thinking people with such exciting ideas.’

Smart Renewable Heat were the third winners. Their ‘Heat as a Service’ offering is delivered through an energy services company and provides heat pumps to customers, which are monitored using smart controls to maximise their performance. Chief Executive, Karl Drage, was pleased with what his company had got out of the event:

‘We are obviously delighted to win. That aside, we thought the day was hugely productive. We made some great connections and held a lot of very useful technical conversations, which will certainly progress the advancement and deployment of our technology.’

There was a real sense of determination amongst those present to make this event the start of something special, in the drive to create a low carbon economy across the whole region.

‘The most encouraging thing for me was that this event was not a one off, but something that marks the beginning of a sustained investment by multiple stakeholders across the West Midlands in energy systems innovation and enterprise. This means that it’s not just the three companies who won today that will hopefully grow and thrive, but many more, including all those who were disappointed this time,’ said Matthew Rhodes.

‘We are very grateful to Climate KIC for getting the ball rolling so well. I’m optimistic that the innovation and enterprise support infrastructure that is in place will make a real difference very quickly.’